China is on the verge of becoming the world's largest investor in green energy as it struggles to reverse the catastrophic effect its industry has wreaked on the environment.
Last year, China spent £6 billion on renewable energy projects, just slightly short of Germany, the world leader. This year, the Communist Party has vowed to redouble its efforts.
Li Junfeng, an energy expert at the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), said that in terms of the "overall scale of renewable energy development", China already leads the way.
Wu Changhua, an expert at the Climate Group, a pro-business environmental NGO, said there had been a sudden realisation in Beijing that China needed a "new path" to prevent environmental disaster.
"When I started environmental lobbying 18 months ago, people asked me what I was doing. Now there is intense mainstream attention," she said.
"The awareness about the environment is very high. There are daily articles in the state media. Although I hate to put it this way, many Chinese are now rich enough to put the environment ahead of development."
China's economic miracle has blackened its huge cities, poisoned its water resources and ravaged its countryside. Last year, China overtook the US in carbon dioxide emissions. Sixteen of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China.
Tens of thousands of pollution-inspired riots every year have helped drill home the message. The Ministry of Public Security has listed pollution among the top five threats to China's peace and stability. Two years ago, the government publicly admitted that the Chinese landscape was "chu mu jing xin" or "whatever meets the eye is shocking".
Its solution is a combination of stringent environmental laws, severe punishments for provincial governors who fail to clean up the mess and a reliance on a thriving market for renewable technology.
The Urumqi-based Goldwind, the world's largest wind turbine maker, has seen 100 per cent growth in each of the past eight years. China is also the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels and has pioneered a new solar hot-water heating system that is now seen everywhere from Beijing airport to the refugee camps of Sichuan.
"It is widely believed that wind power will be able to compete with coal generation as early as 2015," said Mr Li. Presently, coal accounts for 70 per cent of China's power generation.
The target for installed wind power has been raised to 10 gigawatts by 2010 after the previous five gigawatt target was met three years early.
Critics point out, however, that China is unlikely to produce more than three per cent of its power by wind in the next few years.
Nevertheless, the government has pledged that 15 per cent of its energy will come from renewable sources by 2020, and has threatened dire punishments for insufficiently-motivated bureaucrats.
Sixty per cent of the performance evaluation of officials and the heads of the country's giant state-owned corporations will be based on environmental achievements, said Xie Zhanhua, vice-minister of the NDRC. Previously, the only criteria that counted towards a promotion was the ability to deliver economic growth.
Zhou Shengxian, the minister for environmental protection, warned 21 provincial governors that they would be held personally accountable if they failed to clean up China's major lakes and rivers.
Ms Wu said the Climate Group was briefing both senior politburo members on strategy and local governors on how to tow the Party line. "The cities want practical advice from us on what to do," she said.
In the countryside, thousands of surveyors are measuring the precise amount of fertiliser and pesticides being used by farmers. China uses more than three times as much fertiliser per hectare as the US. Livestock excrement and sewage is also being recorded to produce a comprehensive rural map.
Zhang Fentong, at the Ministry of Agriculture, said more than 1,000 "clean" model villages are being developed which can dispose of 90 per cent of their waste in a sustainable way.
Critics point out, however, that China's green revolution is failing to keep pace with its booming industry, which needs more and more power to keep it going.
Dr Erica Downs, China energy fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that while there was a strong message about the environment coming from Beijing, the poor management of the energy sector was derailing the country's efforts.
A new energy management body has recently been set up but Dr Downs said it was "unlikely to substantially improve energy governance. The changes are tantamount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
China to become world's largest investor in green energyBy Malcolm Moore in Shanghai
Last Updated: 12:01pm BST 16/09/2008